August 31, 2011

ORPC’s barge with the company tidal turbine docked in Portland. photo by Ramona du Houx

“Maine is leading the way in ocean energy, and Eastport is leading the way in tidal energy. Ultimately, our systems will be around the world.” said Chris Sauer, president and CEO of Ocean Renewable Power Company (ORPC), a Maine tidal energy company.

As Sauer was interviewed, his prototype underwater tidal turbine was behind him mounted on Energy Tide 2 — a 60-foot research barge that was docked at Portland’s waterfront during the International Conference on Ocean Energy (ICOE) last June. The 46-foot-long turbine unit looks like the Jolly Green Giant’s hand-powered lawnmower. This prototype unit has the distinguishing honor of being the largest working tidal energy turbine ever to be deployed in the U.S.

“There is no question this system works,” said Sauer. “We officially concluded the project last December after a series of tests for six months. At the end of the day, they all exceeded performance expectations. We achieved autonomous operation, sustained operations, and water above design capacity. It was a huge steppingstone for us. It means now we are ready to commercialize these systems.”

Now ORPC is building a unit that will be about twice the length, at 90 feet. This TidGen Power System will produce about 150 kilowatts for Bangor Hydro Electric Company’s grid, which is enough electricity to power 50 to 75 homes.

“We hope we will have our federal license by September and our first unit connected in the water to the grid by the end of the year in Cobscook Bay,” said Sauer. “It will likely be the first grid-connected tidal energy project in the United States.”

On board the barge, researchers can monitor the speed of the ocean current, the revolutions of turbines, voltage and power output, as well as using aquatic cameras to watch how marine life interacts with the system. When the turbine is in operation, it is 18 feet down under the barge. When the tide gets flowing, it moves the turbines at a rapid clip.

“She generates 35 rpms at about five and a half knots,” said Jim Mitchell, a former Navy engineer who was working in an energy plant before he became a systems operator for ORPC.

Portland has six-foot tides; Eastport has 24 feet, and in the Bay of Fundy they can reach over 42 feet. Each day, 100 billion tons of water flows in and out of the bay, with the force of 8,000 locomotives.

“The tide gets going so fast on Cobscook Bay, there is so much strength on the barge and so much tension on the mooring lines, we say the lines are ‘humming tight,’” said Mitchell. “It looks like whitewater rapids along both sides of the barge. It’s a lot of tidal flow, a lot of force, coming down through there.”

Mitchell was born and raised in Eastport. ORPC makes it a priority to hire people in the community. He said that since 2007 the company has brought $2 million to the Maine economy and hired or retained over a hundred jobs in the state.

“To have tidal energy come back, after the idea to harness tidal power was shelved, is tremendous for our community. Eastport has always known about Franklin Delano Roosevelt coming here to do tidal energy with the Garry Dam project. ORPC’s plan is even better. We’re not damming the tidal energy; we’re going to the bottom of the sea to capture it,” said Mitchell.

For a company to revitalize tidal power in the region has given the Eastport community hope.

“We know we get 24-foot tides up there. We know we get currents up to five to six knots. We’ve known for years that the energy is there to be utilized. For a company to come back and do it is energizing to the people. The community is extremely enthused about it,” said Mitchell. “Since I came home from the Navy, jobs have been lost; the economy has dropped off hard. This project gives the community hope. It’s putting Eastport on the map.”

Over the holiday season, ORPC had just finished working with the Coast Guard to successfully power a facility.

“After our Coast Guard project, we used the pods to deliver the excess energy to downtown Eastport’s Christmas tree. It was exciting to be able to tell my friends that the tree was lit up by tidal power right from our own bay,” said Mitchell.

ORPC has proven to be a community partner; the company is also a promoter of Maine businesses.

“This is good for Washington County and Lubec, but it’s also good for Bangor, Portland, Brunswick — this is having a statewide impact,” said John Ferland, vice president of ORPC. “Our supply chain reaches 13 of Maine’s 16 counties.”

Ferland estimated that within seven to ten years more than 400 jobs and $1 billion in investment could come to Maine, as the state becomes known as a center of research and development for global tidal energy.

“We’re poised to become a center of excellence for America in this field. We get inundated with requests from all over the world,” said Sauer.

Ocean Renewable received $14 million in federal funding and $3 million in loans and grants from Maine Technology Institute. The confidence the state and federal government showed with these initial funding streams helped ORPC raise more than $20 million — in private equity.

There are numerous federal regulations that have to be met — and to be written.

“It’s a burdensome process, but in all fairness to the regulatory agencies, it is all new to them. They’ve never really studied tidal currents. The whole resource is unexplored in America,” said Sauer. “We spent the last five years in an educational process. As a company, we strongly believe in a collaborative approach and have worked together with agencies involved. We have made very significant progress.”

ORPC holds three permits in the bay. In late 2011, following FERC approval, ORPC will begin the Maine Tidal Energy Project by installing a commercial TidGen Power System in Cobscook Bay. This system will be monitored for a year. If successful, ORPC will then install additional power systems over three years to increase the project’s capacity to 3 megawatts — enough electricity to power 1,200 Maine homes and businesses.

“We will eventually have arrays of these individual devices that will comprise a total system,” said Sauer.

That system would have about forty units like the prototype turbine, linked together in a grid pattern. Other tidal units being designed in the U.S. have the appearance of submerged wind turbines. ORPC’s design is the only kind in the world, and University of Maine researchers played a critical role.

“We’re continuing to work with researchers at the University of Maine to make the system more efficient — more cost effective,” said Sauer. “They’ve an invaluable partner.”

Miniaturized models of the composite blades from the basic Jolly Green Giant turbine design are being tested by researchers and students at UMaine.

“We are optimizing the design of the turbine, so we can harness more power. That extra percent of energy can make the difference of losing or making a lot of money,” said Raul Urbina, a graduate research assistant in mechanical engineering at the University of Maine. “We’re also analyzing how much energy can be harnessed from the Bay of Fundy and looking intensely at the environmental impacts to the area, if any. We have a tow-tank and use scale models with different types of blades. We are looking at analytical models that make it easier to understand the reality.”

The enthusiasm of UMaine’s turbine team is palpable.

“Working on a emerging technology, knowing that we are doing pioneering research, is exciting. We’re refining techniques and pushing the boundaries of the research,” said Geoff Debree, who has worked on the project for two and a half years at UMaine.

These young scientists make their own models at UMaine for testing.

“We make a mold and fill it with carbon fiber composites, bake it, and then we have a new blade,” said Debree.

Matt Cameron, another UMaine student, is working to find the optimum locations for placement of the turbines.

“We work on the effect of the pull field behind and in front of the turbine for the best sittings,” said Cameron.

Colleen Swanger is relativity new to the project but nonetheless enthusiastic to be working on an alternative energy technology.

“We can to so much by optimizing the energy sources we have in the natural world to eventually be using clean energy everywhere,” said Swanger, who also serves in the National Guard. “Ocean energy is going to be a big part of that.”

Tidal energy is scheduled to be the first ocean-energy technology off Maine’s coast that will be generating electricity to the grid. The experiences ORPC has will aid UMaine’s plans to build floating offshore wind-turbine farms.

“The lessons we are learning in ocean energy will be invaluable to the offshore wind industry, when they actually start building large projects,” said Sauer. “We are all part of the same exciting ocean-energy industry in the state.”

UPDATE: ORPC tidal power to install turbines off Nova Scotia with Canadian partnership

Ocean Renewable Power Company and Nova Scotia based Fundy Tidal Inc. plan to install underwater tidal turbines in the Petit Passage off western Nova Scotia in the fall of 2012. The partnership exposes ORPC to a potentially lucrative market as Nova Scotia’s government seeks to make the province a world leader in tidal power.

“With the establishment of ORPC Nova Scotia Ltd., Eastport and Lubec are now located in the epicenter of one of the largest tidal energy markets in the world,” said CEO Chris Sauer or ORPC. The company’s subsidiary, ORPC Nova Scotia Ltd .,will conduct business in Nova Scotia.

First ORPC, which has tested its system in the waters off Eastport and Lubec, will install a turbine system off eastern Maine this fall.

More than 160 billion tons of water flow in and out of the Bay of Fundy every day. Maine shares the Bay of Fundy with Canada, and development potential in Canadian waters is ten times greater than it is in Maine. The goal in the Petit Passage is to install about fifteen to twenty ORPC tidal power units.

The Canadian project is getting assistance from the government of Nova Scotia, which has established a special rate of 65.2 cents per kilowatt-hour for tidal power to be paid by utilities to promote community-based tidal energy projects. Nova Scotia’s government has made $750,000 available to support the assessment of underwater sites for small tidal projects.